The act of putting a seed in the ground, having it grow and produce delicious, natural edibles can also have a surprisingly low chance of success. Sun exposure, water, space and particularly soil conditions can have a big impact on whether or not a seed germinates, grows and produces.
So, unless your an experienced gardener with existing beds, take the ground out of the equation altogether and plant in containers. Whether you use terra cotta pots, raised beds or your favorite thrift store finds, container gardening gives you control over soil quality and placement, and often allows you to get more produce for the space. It's a great solution for outdoor space of any size. Here are the five elements necessary to make sure you produce the most produce.
The container is the vessel or the walls that hold the soil. Ceramic or plastic pots are commonly sold at garden centers and home improvement stores, but you can plant in almost anything that can stand up to being outside: food containers, old tires, metal tubs, old coolers, tiered planters and more. The trick with container planting is that the soil must have proper drainage that allows water to flow out of the soil and root system and not drown the plants. If you're using a recycled container, you must use a drill to create a series of holes in the bottom that will allow for drainage. Adding some rocks or small stones at the bottom can help.
If you own your home or have a small yard where you'll stay for a while, you can build a raised garden bed, which is a container as well. Grab two 2x10s from the hardware store in cedar, redwood or other weather-resisting species. Cut each in half and connect with 3 1/2" decking screws to create a 4x4' box. Set into place, then cover the inside area with wet newspaper as a barrier for weeds and grass.
Soil is the real reason to opt for containers instead of the ground: you can control the makeup of the medium in which you grow your plants. Furthermore, you can prevent most weed growth, since you're not bringing in any external seeds of plants you don't intend to grow.
You can buy commercially available potting mixes, but I'd recommend creating your own from a mix of perlite, vermiculite, compost, peat moss and/or top soil. These create spongy, lightweight mixes that allow for excellent drainage and for plants to germinate easily and build root systems. Look online or ask your local garden center for recipes and ratios.
The plants are up to you. Nearly any annual can grow in a container of appropriate size. Grow what you want to eat; what you can't find easily at local farmer's markets; and what you'll like to look at. The most important aspect is selecting seasonal plants that work well in your area in terms of sun exposure and season. You simply cannot grow tender lettuces or spinach in full sun in the middle of summer -- they'll fry. So, shop at a local garden center that has started their seeds in-house. Or, consult your county extension center or local Master Gardeners club for recommendations. They may even have some proven seedlings for sale. You can also start your own seedlings with this DIY grow light how-to from GMC Trade Secrets.
Sunlight is a necessary source of energy that allows plants to grow. The great thing about container gardening is that you can place or move your containers to get the appropriate amount and intensity of sunlight each plant species needs. Customize the plants you choose based on what sort of exposure your space gets. Summer favorites like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers need full sun for months, but many herbs, fruits, berries and leafy greens can survive in only four to six hours of sunlight a day. Check the seed packet or planter tag for your plants needs, then customize your container's arrangement to suit the sunlight needs of what's growing inside.
The Water and Nutrients
With proper drainage and the right soil mix, it's hard to overwater your plants. Overwatering is undesirable, as it rots plant roots. This is important to note in rainy areas during the spring and fall. Most container gardens only need to be watered once a day, preferably in the morning or late evening, when the hot sun will not heat up the water on the leaves and damage them. Remember: water the soil, not the plants. Plants receive water via their root system, not their leaves. The leaves absorb sunlight.
Nutrients and other soil amendments can easily be added to containers, where amounts are small and the soil is easy to work. Usually you can simply add a cup or two of blended compost with each new round of plants or seeds. Consider creating your own super rich compost by building a DIY worm bin, or using another natural fertilizer.